The beauty of cinema is its ability to connect us empathetically with people in situations we might not otherwise be familiar with, or even aware of. For myself, I was unaware of the Eastern practice of not telling an elderly when they’re diagnosed with a terminal illness, thus lifting the burden of dying off of them (“In China, we have a saying: when someone gets cancer, they die. But it’s the fear that really kills them.”) This touching, tender portrait of a life caught between two societies never asks us to choose which is better; it only asks us to relate. Before watching the film, I secretly wanted Awkwafina to turn out to be brilliant because I imagined some drunk Hollywood idiot mispronouncing her name at the Oscars. Now I’m annoyed that she was snubbed, because I wanted her to win all the awards in the world, because holy shit, she is an incredible actress.
I don’t like how the phrase “Hitchcockian” gets thrown around willy-nilly. Yet I’m also at a loss for how better to describe Bong Joon Hoo’s brilliant social thriller, which largely contains people committing crimes, trying not to get caught in the act. As a work of socio-political commentary and a piece of entertainment, Hoo excels at both, with the message of the film never interfering with how gut-churningly suspenseful or gut-bustingly hilarious it is, or vice versa. This was the well-deserved Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars, and while I have no doubt that they only got it right by accident – they are the Oscars, after all, and they are stupid – this one time, they did absolutely get it right. Director Bong knows the score: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Preach.
It feels like each year these past couple of years have had at least one sci-fi masterpiece to them. 2015 had The Martian, 2016 had Arrival, 2017 had Blade Runner 2049, and 2018 had Annihilation. And now…2019. High Life is the first film from French writer/director Claire Denis to be shot in english. With that in mind, it’s fascinating how nonverbal the film is; made with all the subtlety and depth Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra could only dream of, High Life relies on feeling and emotion rather than empty spectacle. Fascinatingly, the film’s director, Claire Denis, is French, and this is her first ever English-language film. Yet more proof as to the universal language of cinema; that one-inch barrier is looking pretty flimsy, huh?
Painted faces and long hair. A stick sharpened at both ends. These are just a few of the images Monos dances before our eyes in service of its tale about teenage soldiers, making its chief literary allusion pretty clear long before a literal decapitated pig’s head pops up in the movie. Following a group of Colombian child soldiers engaged in an unspecified conflict, Monos isn’t shy about invoking Lord of the Flies, which might be a tricky prospect if the film itself weren’t so well-judged.
Her Smell is an intensely psychological experience, a cococophany of sight and sound that culminates in a brutal depiction of mental disparity. Elizabeth Moss gives the performance of a lifetime as “Becky Something” and Cara Develenge finally gets to show her stuff in a movie that doesn’t suck. Much like Uncut Gems, the way the film depicts downward spiraling and addiction is cinematically gripping and nerve-wracking, but unlike Uncut Gems, there’s a glimmer of real and honest hope to the proceedings. A masterpiece.
It’s incredible the turnaround I had on this movie. I went in with nothing but dread, having detested the laughable Queen biopic attempt from just last year. Now the same director was going to do one for Elton John? Well, as it turns out, Rocketman is a redemption story; one for director Dexter Fletcher, a man who does deserve our respect for taking the mangled corpse of Bryan Singer’s failed movie, wrangling it together in something like a coherent narrative, and dragging it over the finish line. That’s no small feat, and Rocketman could be seen as a well-deserved victory lap. Fletcher’s in control from the beginning, and his superior skill is apparent from the word go. Rocketman is a fun, lively musical, one which gleefully transcends the usual boring old biopic conventions in favor of making a “true fantasy.”
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
It’s fitting, considering the subject matter, that the best way to describe Portrait of a Lady on Fire is “cinematic artwork.” This French film (yet more proof that Bong Joon Ho knows the score; the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles mean nothing here) is just getting its wide release now in 2020, which in some respects makes it a 2020 film. Which means it might end up on two Best Of lists! Honestly, it’s so perfect, I’d accept that.
What’s ultimately most surprising about Uncut Gems, the pressure-cooker thriller from the directors of Good Time, is how it isn’t actually all that far removed from what we might consider to be a “normal” Adam Sandler movie. Once again, he’s playing a loud, abrasive asshole, an idiot manchild who gets in over his head in a bad situation, and keeps digging himself deeper through no fault but his own. The difference here is context; namely, that the Safdie brothers have constructed a movie that knows that the main character doesn’t deserve to win. This simple understanding would be enough to push this into the upper echelon of Sandler flicks, even without its impeccable script, its spine-tingling score, and the best performance Sandler has ever given. Yes, better than Punch Drunk Love.
As a young lad who grew up with the works of Agatha Christie, Knives Out was my movie. A delicious balancing act between genre throwback and 21st century update, Rian Johnson’s best film yet (yes, better than Brick, and even Looper) is a sly and intelligent mystery film, one that trusts its audience to keep up and understand what’s going on. Every clue is fairly laid out before us, thus allowing us the privilege to play along with Daniel Craig’s brilliant detective, without fear that the film will cheat us on the solution.
For a hot internet minute there, Martin Scorcese made headlines for comments where he appeared to go on the attack against Marvel. “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” he was quoted as saying, and while his comments were clearly more about his own personal taste in films than anything else, the nerd rage that followed was very real. And while the “controversy” was no doubt capitalized on/exaggerated by hit-desperate clickbait sites, I have to imagine there were quite a number of Marvel fans out there positively tearing their hair out at the release of The Irishman, “real cinema” if ever such a thing could be identified. Less a sprawling gangster epic than a mournful elegy of time gone by, Scorcese crafted the epilogue to end all motherfucking epilogues with this movie, a capper on a career that no one can match.